In September 2020, a Syrian rebel group called the Hamza Division showed up in an unexpected place: the disputed post-Soviet territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, 600 miles from Aleppo. The rebels had been offered $1,500 per month each to fight for Azerbaijan against Armenia in the two countries' border war over that disputed territory, several different news outlets reported.
Sayf Bulad, commander of the Hamza Division, has an interesting past. He served as a commander in a CIA-backed rebel group, appeared in pro–Islamic State propaganda, trained with the U.S. military, and fought other U.S.-backed rebel groups in Syria on behalf of the Turkish government. Now he was helping two former Soviet republics fight each other for money.
Bulad's story is a symbol of the chaotic U.S. policy toward Syria and its unintended consequences.
U.S. policy toward Syria was torn between two often-clashing goals during the Obama administration: The CIA and State Department were focused on ending the Assad family's decadeslong rule, while the U.S. military was trying to crush violent religious extremists such as the Islamic State.
President Donald Trump inherited this awkwardly stitched-together policy and added in an element of chaos. The president himself said he wanted to end "endless wars" and claimed he was ready to pull U.S. forces out of Syria at the first opportunity. But he hired a collection of hawkish advisers who thought of Syria as a battlefield on which to make Iran and Russia bleed.
"He hasn't been able to bring American troops home, because his own bureaucracy resists him," says Aaron Stein, director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. "He never set up a bureaucratic process to actually implement what he wants to do."
The result has been a disaster.
In 2018 and 2019, Trump ordered U.S. forces out of Syria, only to walk back the order both times. The Kurds have been left in a deadly limbo, unable to count on U.S. protection from Turkey but also blocked from looking to outside powers for help. Meanwhile, American troops have found themselves in increasingly dangerous confrontations with their Russian counterparts in the country.
U.S. policy has not only failed to stop the conflict; it has helped prolong it, leaving millions of Syrians at the mercy of White House palace intrigue. President-elect Joe Biden will have to find a way to extract the United States from Syria without reigniting the civil war—or getting sucked back in.
'The Time Has Come'
The United States began backing Syrian rebels because many in the Obama administration believed that they could help quickly bring down an oppressive tyrant. Instead, the U.S. intervention fed into a bloody, yearslong international conflict.
U.S.-Syrian hostility dates back decades. Syria is a close ally of Russia and Iran and helped support the insurgents during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. But direct U.S. involvement in Syrian internal politics began with the Arab Spring.
As in other Arab countries at the time, Syrian activists rose up in protest against corruption and political repression. Syrian dictator Bashar Assad cracked down with brute force. Part of the Syrian army deserted, and the uprising became a full-blown civil war.
U.S. officials "looked at Bashar al-Assad as a hapless dictator who was not going to survive any of this," says Frederic Hof, who served as an envoy for Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations at the time. President Barack Obama declared in August 2011 that "the time has come for President Assad to step aside," although he also made it clear that "the United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria."
Nevertheless, in an effort to hasten Assad's end, the Obama administration imposed economic sanctions banning nearly all trade with Syria. The Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush administrations had previously imposed some sanctions on the Syrian government for supporting terrorism, but the new sanctions put the entire country under a blockade.
Other countries lined up more forcefully behind the anti-Assad opposition. Saudi Arabia, seeking to hurt Assad's ally Iran, sent arms to the rebels. So did Turkey and Qatar, who saw the uprisings of the Arab Spring as a way to increase their own influence.
In 2013, Obama gave the CIA a green light to join in directly arming Syria's rebels. Many details of the "Timber Sycamore" program remain classified, but it reportedly cost billions of dollars over four years. Assad's forces lost control of much of the country in this time.
Hof and Robert Ford, the last U.S. envoy in Syria, claim that the U.S. arms program was not a decisive factor. It was "overwhelmed by support provided by regional actors such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey," Hof says. Other experts, including Stein, disagree. In particular, they say, U.S.-made anti-tank rockets played a key role in helping the rebels push back the Syrian military.
But the regime did not fall.
"Rather than Bashar capitulating," Stein explains, "he said, 'I'm going to the Russians and the Iranians'" for help. "It was the boomerang of the success of the CIA program."
Ford had believed early in the conflict that Assad could not win a war of attrition—and that the opposition could convince Assad's allies in Russia and Iran to stay out of the fight. This prediction turned out to be incorrect. Iran soon began sending military advisers, volunteers, and mercenaries to back Assad. By late 2015, Russian jets and combat troops were also in the country.
"We made a terrible, terrible analytical mistake," says Ford.
Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime eventually retook most of Syria's major cities through years of brutal siege warfare. As many as 200,000 civilians died in the process, in addition to the tens of thousands who perished in Assad's prisons during this period, according to the pro-opposition Syrian Network for Human Rights and the British-funded Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The chaos also allowed religious fundamentalists to take a prominent role in the Syrian opposition. Syrian nationalist rebels vetted and backed by the United States fought alongside sectarian Islamist groups.
"We effectively created auxiliaries to these hardline groups that were taking territory," Stein says. "Even though the hardliners were smaller in number, they were more effective."
These "openly sectarian figures…just scared the hell out of Syrian minorities, who as a result stuck with Assad," explains Hof, who resigned from the government in 2012 and now teaches at Bard College.
Religious fundamentalists became especially powerful in Eastern Syria, where U.S. military intelligence warned in August 2012 that Al Qaeda in Syria was going to "declare an Islamic state through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria," according to a declassified report.
At the same time, Syria's long-oppressed Kurdish minority was starting to take up arms. They were led by a left-wing guerrilla group called the People's Defense Units (YPG).
The YPG began to clash with Al Qaeda, whose Syrian branch broke off to form the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in early 2014. The Kurdish militants sought autonomy for their region under a secular system of self-rule, while Al Qaeda and later the Islamic State wanted to establish a pan-Islamic theocracy—just as the U.S. military intelligence report had warned.
U.S. diplomats were flying blind when it came to the region, according to Ford, now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. American intelligence agencies had not even been able to provide him with "two pages" on the political dynamics of northeastern Syria. But pressure was building on Obama to act, especially as the Islamic State executed journalists on tape and began a genocide against the Yazidi minority in neighboring Iraq.
The administration did not really understand which factions it could work with in Syria, according to Alexander Bick, then the director of Syrian affairs at the White House National Security Council. But eventually, the American military saw that the YPG was drawing Islamic State fighters "like a magnet" to the besieged northern Syrian city of Kobanê in late 2014. The United States opened a line of communication with the Syrian Kurds through intermediaries in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the YPG began helping direct U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State.
At the same time, the U.S. military was trying to work with other Syrian rebel groups. It spent $500 million on a program to train and equip a new army of pro-America, anti-Assad fighters. The results were disastrous. The first batch of fighters was quickly defeated and robbed by Al Qaeda in July 2015. Other alumni of the program, including the Hamza Division, went on to fight as mercenaries throughout the region—turning up, eventually, in Nagorno-Karabakh.
"We would hear, 'I have 5,000 men'…and it turned out there would be like 20," said former Middle East envoy Brett McGurk during a October 2019 speech at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "Or the forces that we wanted to work with were so riddled with extremists that our military repeatedly said, 'There's no way we can work with these people.'"
Finally, the U.S. helped the YPG form a coalition with Assyrian Christian and Arab fighters called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). With minimal U.S. involvement—mostly in the form of military advisers and air support—the coalition sliced the Islamic State into pieces.
SDF fighters found themselves at the gates of Raqqa, the Islamic State's de facto capital, by October 2016.
Obama had launched two interventions in Syria. The first, a covert attempt to overthrow Assad, failed miserably. The second, the war against the Islamic State—which sought to fix problems partially created by the first—succeeded only when the administration set limited goals, employed modest means, and relied on a campaign led by locals.
'Orderly Transfer of Power'
Trump may have criticized America's interventions abroad during the 2016 election, but his administration picked up almost exactly where Obama had left off. McGurk stayed on as the White House's point man for military operations in Syria and Iraq, and Trump signed off on his roadmap, with a few important adjustments.
The new administration launched airstrikes against pro-Assad forces in April 2017 and April 2018 in response to chemical weapons attacks on civilians. Trump saw himself as reestablishing a "red line" that Obama had muddled.
Trump also started backing the YPG, who were still the most effective fighters in the SDF, more directly. American weapons flowed to the Kurds, while about 400 U.S. Marines joined the front lines in Raqqa, the first-ever conventional U.S. boots on the ground in Syria. "Donald Trump wanted to end the war in Syria as fast as possible," says Stein. "That's why he signed off on arming the YPG directly."
The international coalition declared victory at Raqqa in October 2017 and moved on to hunt down the remnants of the Islamic State in the oil-rich, Arab-majority rural province of Deir al-Zor, Syria. The campaign there, which dragged on for more than a year, was temporarily put on pause when Turkey invaded the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin in January 2018. American officials described the Kurds' mini-war with Turkey as a "distraction," but the conflict would later become a major headache for the United States.
Trump then began to talk about withdrawing from Syria—while at the same time escalating against Iran.
In April 2018, the president appointed longtime hawk John Bolton as his national security adviser and promoted CIA Director Mike Pompeo to secretary of state. Both saw Iran rather than the Islamic State as America's greatest enemy in the Middle East. They began a "maximum pressure" campaign meant to roll back Iranian influence across the region, which included forcing Iranian troops out of Syria.
Pompeo put two hawkish officials in charge of Syria policy: James Jeffrey, a veteran cold warrior who had served as U.S. ambassador to both Turkey and Iraq, and Joel Rayburn, a retired Army officer who had helped advise the U.S. military "surge" in Iraq.
McGurk supported brokering a peace deal between the Syrian Kurds and the Russians, but he met opposition from the new faction of Iran hawks in the administration. Jeffrey even asked the Kurds not to make a deal with Assad, telling them to rely instead on U.S. protection, the Daily Beast later reported. The hawkish faction also saw the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces as a "terrorist group," as Bolton put it.
The YPG was close to an insurgent group in Turkey called the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Ironically, U.S. diplomats had predicted confidently in November 2007 that the Syrian Kurds would "not rally around the extremist tendencies of the PKK," according to a cable later published by WikiLeaks. But in fact, both the PKK's "libertarian socialist" ideology and actual PKK veterans held enormous influence over the Syrian Kurdish rebellion.
By 2018, Turkey was extremely unhappy with the growing power of the SDF, which it saw as an extension of the PKK. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan got Trump on the phone to complain about it in December 2018. Trump, eager to fulfill a campaign promise to bring American troops home, agreed to pull U.S. forces out of Syria, which would leave Turkey free to invade.
That decision set off a bomb within the administration. Many officials felt blindsided by the sudden announcement and anxious about "betraying" the SDF to Turkey. McGurk quit in frustration. So did Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
Bolton, Pompeo, Jeffrey, and Rayburn stayed, however. The Iran hawks were now in full control.
The hawks began to work on an agreement called the "safe zone," a project to let everyone have a cake and eat it, too. The deal would bring Turkish troops into northern Syria as part of an international peacekeeping force, which could push the Kurdish YPG away from the border. American forces would stay in the short term to help implement the plan.
"While we played this string out, or developed a better idea, which might take months, we had a good argument for maintaining U.S. forces," Bolton later wrote in his memoir. He added that he had hoped an "orderly transfer of power" from U.S. forces to Turkish troops would prevent Assad, Iran, and Russia from retaking northeastern Syria.
Turkey and the United States finally agreed to a deal in August 2019, and the SDF coalition dismantled its fortifications along the border with Turkey.
Trump's advisers were hoping they could keep U.S. forces in Syria to fight Assad without angering Turkey—all while appearing to bring American troops home. Bolton wrote in his memoir that he was "deliberately vague" to both Trump and the media when it came to the number of Americans that would be necessary to implement the safe zone.
In an interview he gave to DefenseOne shortly after resigning from the State Department following the 2020 election, Jeffrey admitted that he had been "playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there." As part of that effort, U.S. military leaders and Bolton pushed to count U.S. forces at Al-Tanf, a remote desert base far from the SDF-controlled zone, separately from the rest of the U.S. deployment to Syria.
Trump wanted out of Syria, but instead of organizing an orderly withdrawal, his advisers tried to take the fight against Assad out of the public eye.
As part of an effort to resurrect the anti-Assad rebellion, Trump administration officials had pushed the SDF to work with Turkish-backed Islamists against Assad. The effort didn't go well. In one tense September 2019 meeting, according to a report from The National Interest, Rayburn screamed and broke a writing utensil in frustration after Syrian Kurdish officials refused to join forces with the Islamic hardliners.
Erdoğan, meanwhile, was publicly agitating to expand the safe zone. He got his wish and more during an October 6, 2019, call with Trump, when the U.S. president gave him a green light to invade Syria outright. It remains unknown what exactly the two leaders said, but the White House announced immediately afterward that "Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria."
American forces had dismantled the SDF's anti-tank fortifications as part of the safe zone deal two months earlier, rendering the Syrian Kurds defenseless. Now the United States was ushering in Turkish tanks and Turkish-backed militants.
Over 100,000 Syrians fled the invasion. They had seen the same forces unleash chaos, mayhem, and ethnic violence on Afrin a year earlier.
"I've met numerous people who were displaced when Turkey invaded in October  and personally blame Trump," writes Amy Austin Holmes, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson -International Center for Scholars, from Syria.
The Trump administration was willing to allow Turkey to invade northern Syria. But the administration did not want the Syrian Kurds to turn to Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime for help, which would undo years of efforts to roll back the influence of Assad and his allies. U.S. policy, in other words, was not only to refuse to protect the Kurds but also to deny them protection from others.
A U.S. diplomat tried to convince SDF leader Mazloum Abdi to hold off on asking Russia to step in. Turkish forces were only going to move 30 kilometers into Syria and the invasion would stop after that, he claimed.
The Kurdish general was not having it. "You will not protect us and you won't let anyone else protect us. Your presence has turned everyone else in Syria against us," Abdi responded, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable leaked to CNN. "Either you stop this bombing [by Turkey] on our people now, or move aside so we can let in the Russians."
The SDF signed a "memorandum of understanding" with the Assad regime soon after, allowing Assad's troops to join the fight against the Turkish invasion. Russia and Turkey then agreed to a safe zone of their own—along the same lines as the U.S. proposal—and the Syrian Kurds watched as Russian troops moved into their region as protection against the Turkish Army.
The Trump administration had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Instead of planning for an orderly U.S. withdrawal and encouraging the Syrian Kurds to negotiate a peace deal with other factions in the country, Trump's advisers tried to use the SDF to continue their anti-Assad campaign. Their efforts ended not with a Kurdish-led rebellion against Assad but with the Kurds looking to Assad and his allies to shield them from their archrival Turkey.
'Take the Oil'
Trump's pullout of Americans from Syria following his deal with Erdoğan was short-lived. U.S. troops eventually moved back in, including to areas near the Turkish border now guarded by the Russians. Trump repeatedly claimed that their mission was to "take the oil" or guard the "oil region."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) and other hawks had used the promise of oil profits to sell Trump on their plans to keep U.S. forces in the region, according to Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which lobbies for the Syrian opposition in Washington.
"If you want to feed the baby medicine, you put the medicine in candy or something. That's what happened with the oil," Moustafa told me in November 2019. "It's like, 'Oh, you want to take the oil? Yeah, take the oil. We've got to take the oil.' So that ended up becoming the reason that he would keep anyone there."
The actual oil in the region is not worth much. Syrian petroleum production was falling even before the civil war, and the Islamic State at its peak only made about $1.5 million per day from Deir al-Zor's wells.
But its location is important. Deir al-Zor lies right along the line of contact between the SDF and the Assad regime. By holding that "oil region" as well as the U.S. base at Al-Tanf, U.S. forces can surround Iran's military supply lines on two different sides. This makes Iranian forces in Syria vulnerable to an attack by U.S. forces or allies.
Assad is also sensitive about the oil, as his regime has had trouble meeting its people's fuel needs. Russian mercenaries attacked the SDF on Assad's behalf in February 2018 to try (unsuccessfully) to take the oil fields in Deir al-Zor.
To make matters more complicated, foreign companies are forbidden from dealing with the oil under European and U.S. economic sanctions. So the Syrian Kurdish oil ministry has been forced to rely on smugglers, whose leaky storage tanks and backyard refineries have become a serious threat to public health.
The situation looked as if it could change in April 2020, when the U.S. Treasury Department issued a special sanctions exemption to a little-known company called Delta Crescent Energy. Jeffrey and Rayburn then met with politicians in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan to discuss opening a route for Delta Crescent Energy to export the oil, The New Republic later reported.
Graham and Pompeo finally went public with those discussions during a Senate hearing in July 2020. "I talked to General Mazloum yesterday, with the SDF," Graham said. "Apparently they've signed a deal with an American oil company to modernize the oil fields in northeastern Syria. Are you supportive of that?"
"We are," Pompeo responded. "The deal took a little longer, senator, than we had hoped, and now we're in implementation."
Delta Crescent Energy partner James Cain told Politico that the company's goal was "to get the production back up to where it was before the civil war and sanctions." But there was a problem: The Syrian Kurds, who control that land, were not completely on board. Ahed Al Hendi, a Syrian-American activist who works with the SDF, called Pompeo's announcement premature. Abed Hamed al-Mehbash, the Arab co-chairman of the SDF's civilian administration, told local media only that he planned to "study requests by many Russian and American companies."
Mazloum Abdi, the Kurdish general, later confirmed to Al-Monitor that Delta Crescent Energy was involved in northeastern Syria but said that talks were "advancing slowly."
The SDF knew that announcing an oil deal with America—and no one else—would be provocative. Indeed, it has been. Assad's foreign ministry quickly denounced the agreement as a scheme to "steal Syria's oil" and "an assault against Syria's sovereignty."
In August 2020, an Iranian-backed militia fired rockets at a U.S.-controlled oil field in Syria. That same week, pro-Assad gunmen got into a shootout with U.S. troops at a checkpoint in Qamishli, near the Turkish border.
The week after, a Russian armored truck rammed into a U.S. humvee, injuring at least four Americans. Russian and U.S. troops in Syria had seen tense encounters with each other before, but this was the first violent clash between the two armies.
Russia and Iran did not tie the clashes directly to the oil deal, but the message was clear: A more entrenched U.S. presence in Syria would meet harder resistance.
According to a September 2020 report by Eva Kahan at the Institute for the Study of War, Russia, Iran, and Turkey have also been secretly backing Arab insurgents against the SDF in Deir al-Zor. Russia hopes to use the instability "to compel senior SDF leadership to accept a new deal in Syria that constrains U.S. forces or ejects them," Kahan wrote. In other words, the continued U.S. presence has induced Russia to play good-cop, bad-cop with the Kurds.
Several local leaders have already died in mysterious shootings. In response to the violence, U.S. forces have beefed up their presence in Syria, deploying Bradley Fighting Vehicles and advanced radar systems in September.
One bad decision after another has led to the current situation. The failed U.S. effort to take out Assad helped open the space for the Islamic State, which was only defeated when the U.S. pivoted to supporting Kurdish forces. Instead of allowing the Kurds to consolidate their gains and negotiate with Assad, the U.S. tried to use them as proxies against Assad and to make a quick buck from their oil. The situation has angered both Turkey and Assad's allies, causing them to set aside their differences and turn their sights on pushing out the U.S. presence.
National security officials kept pushing grandiose goals even as U.S. leverage crumbled away. "This isn't a quagmire," Jeffrey said at a May 2020 event at the Hudson Institute. "My job is to make it a quagmire for the Russians." He later praised "the stalemate we've put together" as "a step forward" in the region.
As Rayburn explained at a June 2020 event hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Trump officials think they can use sanctions to "deny the [Assad] regime access to international financial markets until a political solution can be reached." Pro-Assad and opposition negotiators have been meeting in Geneva to work on a new Syrian constitution, although the SDF and the Kurds have never been included in those talks.
But Ford—the former U.S. envoy who learned the hard way that Iran and Russia were unlikely to abandon their interests in Syria—is skeptical that U.S. economic sanctions will be enough to pressure Assad into accepting anything. "I think we are trying to do something with tools that will not deliver the results we want," he says. "They can sanction the hell out of the Assad government. He doesn't give a shit about his people!"
Syrians have faced massive inflation, fuel shortages, and breadlines over the past few months, in addition to a spiralling coronavirus crisis. (A banking crisis in nearby Lebanon is partially to blame for their woes.) But the U.S. is unlikely to lift the economic pressure: Congress passed even more sanctions aimed at deterring foreign reconstruction investment under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019.
The Biden administration may not change other aspects of the strategy, either.
Antony Blinken, the president-elect's nominee for secretary of state, gave a speech to the Meridian Group in May 2020 outlining his approach toward Syria. "Any of us—and I start with myself—who had any responsibility for our Syria policy in the last administration has to acknowledge that we failed," he said. "We failed to prevent horrific loss of life. We failed to prevent massive displacement of people, internally in Syria and of course externally as refugees. It's something that I will take with me for the rest of my days."
And yet his prescription was more of the same.
Blinken claimed that the United States still has "points of leverage," including troops on the ground near oil-rich regions and the ability to marshall resources for Syria's reconstruction, that could lead to better outcomes next time around. He argued that U.S. leaders should demand "some kind of political transition that reflects the desires of the Syrian people" and said that it was "virtually impossible" to imagine normalizing relations with Assad's government.
Hof, another Obama administration alum, believes that the United States can turn the SDF-held zone into "an attractive alternative to Assad" for all Syrians. U.S. diplomats could push for this new government to take over Syria's seat at the United Nations while U.S. forces stay to carry out a "stabilization" mission and "keep the Iranians and the regime and the Russians out." ("We also have the ability to respond militarily to the regime with great effect and force if it resumes a program of mass civilian homicide," Hof says. "We can do a lot of damage with cruise missiles.")
But Ford wants America to focus on the "only really useful things we can do" at this point: to help refugees fleeing the civil war and to "negotiate with the Russians some kind of deal" that would allow the Kurds to govern themselves in peace.
Ford has recently taken a liking to the writing of Robert McNamara, the U.S. secretary of defense during the Vietnam War who later became a critic of the war effort. "Vietnam was a problem that ultimately we could not fix," Ford says. "That's kind of where I'm at with Syria right now."